What Makes a Good Leader, and Who Gets to Be One?

— From the poem “Vital Voices” by Amanda Gorman


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There are a great many women featured in the book “Vital Voices: 100 Women Using Their Power to Empower” who might not count themselves among the world’s most powerful. And it is clear that many — if not most — never sought power in the first place.

The book, which was edited by Alyse Nelson and published by Assouline, is a collection of portraits of female leaders by the artist Gayle Kabaker. Alongside the portraits the women share thoughts on what drives them to do what they do.

The women, many of whom are connected to Vital Voices, a nonprofit group that invests in female leaders, were selected in a process that began with 18,000 nominees.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, of course, is in the book. As is Christine Lagarde. And Jacinda Ardern. But there are also more unexpected names, like Dr. Amani Ballour, a pediatrician who managed an underground hospital during the civil war in Syria, and Marina Pisklakova-Parker, who established the first hotline for survivors of domestic violence in Russia.

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Credit…Gayle Kabaker, courtesy of Assouline

“I wanted it to be the women themselves talking about leadership,” said Ms. Nelson, who co-founded Vital Voices in 1997 and is now its president and C.E.O.

And so they do.

“I start from the conviction that the truth is a transformative force,” notes Claudia Paz y Paz, who served as Guatemala’s first female attorney general.

“We have to be open and optimistic that these little, small, incremental changes that we’re making will eventually mount up to something bigger,” says Rouba Mhaissen, a Syrian-Lebanese activist.

Absent in the pages is the chest-beating braggadocio many traditionally associate with leadership. In its place is a collective, generous reframing of what leadership can be.

We are often presented with two models of leadership, Ms. Nelson said in an interview. The old model is hierarchical. It’s exclusive. It’s about talking, not listening. “If you think about power, it’s the power to discipline, or to not reward,” she said.

The new model, by contrast, is about empowerment. It’s about listening, not talking. It’s about compassion, empathy and humility. It’s about understanding that power is amplified when it’s shared.

Bad leaders, she explained, “hold power and it tightens and disintegrates.” Those who share power find that “the more it builds, the more it comes back to you.”

The pandemic has put leadership under a microscope. Journalists and academics have wondered endlessly whether female leaders have outperformed their male counterparts in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. They ask whether a new, female style of leadership might be here to stay.

Two researchers in Britain — Supriya Garikipati of the University of Liverpool and Uma Kambhampati of the University of Reading — put that hypothesis to the test. They found that countries led by women recorded fewer Covid cases and deaths in the early stages of the pandemic when compared with otherwise similar countries run by men.

The evidence, they concluded, seemed to suggest that “being risk averse with respect to loss of lives and having a clear, empathetic and decisive communication style made a significant difference” in the countries led by women.

But in a recent survey by Women Political Leaders, a global network of female political leaders, and Kantar, a global research group, women were viewed — by both men and women, old and young — as less suitable for positions of power than men. This was consistent across every country they surveyed: Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria and the United States. As Michelle Harrison, the C.E.O. of Kantar Public, put it in an interview: “Perception matters.”

Many have made the case that Covid is the wake-up call that female leaders are now more crucial than ever and that more women need to be at the table. Yet the numbers remain stuck where they always are: women account for around 6 percent of big-company C.E.O.s, 25 percent of Congress members and 11 percent of heads of state around the world.

In her book, Ms. Nelson highlights “perseverance, empathy and a clarity of purpose” as consistent markers in women’s and girls’ journeys to leadership. In her view, the best leaders approach their work with a deep sense of purpose, they have strong roots in their community, they are willing to cross lines, they embrace creativity and boldness, and they choose to pay it forward.

But because these “styles of leadership are so different from traditional styles of leadership,” she said, many “don’t see themselves as leaders at all.”

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